Florence Beatrice Price is considered one of the most successful African American composers. Due to her ethnic background and gender she had to go through many obstacles to accomplish her goals. Florence was born on April 9th, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas to a dentist named James Smith and her mother Florence who was a music teacher. Florence was the youngest of three children that all practiced piano1. By the age of four she made her first piano performance2. Florence was very educated and advanced growing up, at age eleven she had her first composition in print. By age fourteen she graduated as valedictorian at Capitol High School3. She then continued her education at New England Conservatory of Music to study music.
During her education at New England Conservatory, she enrolled herself under Mexican ethnicity due to the laws of segregation still being implemented in schools. While studying music she took lessons on composition from George Whitefield Chadwick who was famous for his works Symphony no.3 in F and Qaurlet no.4 in E. Minor. During her lessons with George Whitefield Chadwick he often encouraged her to incorporate African American influence in her music. Florence also performed twice as a pianist while at the conservatory; she performed Opus 5 by Schumann and Allegro by Reincke4. She soon graduated in 1906 with certificates in piano and organ and returned to Arkansas to teach at Shorter College. Her major works began to be recognized by other composers such as Neumon Leighton, a white composer that used her music for his students to sing5.
After teaching at Shorter College for some time, Florence decided to make a big move to Atlanta to become head of Clark’s University music department. She often gave piano and organ lessons along with recitals and brought in international students to perform. While holding her position there she was in charge of coordinating events and often held lessons for organ and piano. During this time Florence ran into issues because of the very ridged white power structure down south. Her and her students were excluded from certain concert halls because of their race. Even though race was a big issue Clark’s University embraced African American composers6.
Florence returned to Little Rock, Arkansas and got married to a lawyer named Thomas Price. They had three kids two daughters and one son who was a stillborn. Taking care of her family in Arkansas she often mailed her compositions to music competitions. Florence even dedicated a song to her son called “To my little son” which was an art song 7. She put her music studies aside to take care of her children but made her own music studio teaching piano and violin. She was very serious about piano technique and made beginner, intermediate and advance level lessons to emphasize the importance of piano technique8. She became one of the most wanted music teachers in Arkansas. Living in Little Rock, Arkansas became very hard because of the consistent news of lynching and social injustice. Florence had an obligation to follow “social customs” which was take care of her family so this eventually led to Florence moving her family out of Little Rock, Arkansas and to Chicago, Illinois9. While she was in Chicago she studied music at various places and wrote educational pieces for children. After some time because of financial issues Florence and Thomas decided to get a divorce. She continued to write works during her lifetime and then died from a stroke in 1953.
During her career Florence won a lot of awards and wrote more than 300 musical compositions10; this included “twenty orchestra works and over 100 art songs”11. Her style of music was considered to be musical conservative and her works were romantic with a hint of melodies from African American rituals. She had a “passion to incorporate vernacular references into concert music12”. During her era race was a very big issue especially living in the south. Even though Florence tried to avoid racial tensions she knew that she would face discrimination not only being an African American but also being a women. While seeking for name recognition she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky of the Boston Symphony Orchestra nine times before he acknowledged her13. In the letter to him she said:
“My Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,
To begin with I have two handicaps-those of sex and race. I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins… I should like to be judged on merit alone14.”
Since her works were considered excellent American music, white composers often recognized her works and even played them. She frequently submitted her piano compositions to competitions and won for her work Land o’ Cotton. Around 1928, her music was issued as piano music and more than twenty-five of her works were published by Chicago’s McKinley Music Company15. While submitting music she also wrote for radio stations and music commercials. She eventually hit financial hardships due to the depression and worked on a symphony called Symphony No. 1 in E minor. She entered the symphony into the Wanamaker music competition and won first place16.
Getting further into her career she made more symphonies such as the Symphony in C minor and her famous Symphony No.1 in E minor. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, WPA Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, the American Symphony, Bronx Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony and Chicago Chamber Orchestra played her symphonies 17. Her Symphony No. 1 in E Minor along with two other African American composers symphonies were the first African American symphonies performed by major American orchestras18.
Florence started on her Piano Concerto in One Movement and performed in Orchestra Hall and played for NANM (National Association of Negro Musicians). According to J.Fred Lissfelt of the Sun Telegraph he wrote:
“Florence Price’s contribution in the form of a piano concerto was by far the most important feature of the concert for here we see what the Negro has taken from his own idom and with good technique is begging to develop alone. There is real American music and Mrs. Price is speaking a language she knows19.”
Her performance was recognized by Women’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago and was noted to be the best contribution of a piano concerto20. After her recognition she made even more popular works such as Sonata in E Minor and Dances in the Canebrakes. Her Sonata in E minor was described as “conservatively structured in romantic tradition”. Dance in the Canebrakes is described to be an “authentic Negro rhythm” 21.
As time progressed Florence became a member of the ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and often encouraged Marion Anderson, a very accomplished gospel singer to sing her songs. Marion sang two of her works called “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” and “Songs to a Dark Virgin” which was described as “one of the greatest successes ever won by an American song” in Chicago Daily News22. By 1953 Florence’s career suddenly came to an end. On June 3rd Florence was hospitalized with a stroke and died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chicago23. Florence did leave a legacy and still recognized as one of the greatest female African American composers of her time. In Chicago and elementary school was named after her called Price Elementary School24.
A composer that shared similar hardships and accomplishments was William Grant Still. He was an African American composer/conductor born May 11th 1895 in Woodville, Mississippi. When he was younger he moved to Little Rock, Arkansas after his father passed away25. Due to financial struggles he could not pursue his dreams of studying music instead he took a job at W.C Handy’s Music Publishing Company in Memphis, Tennessee. After some time he received an inheritance from his father and was able to pursue the study of music composition26. He studied composition at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Just like Florence he later studied music at New England Conservatory of Music with George Whitefield Chadwick and Edgar Verèse. His college career was interrupted because of World War I and he had to enlist but was only able to be a server because it was the only job African Americans could have27.
Throughout William’s career he produced over 100 compositions including six symphonies, six operas and eight ballets. In the beginning of his career he began to compose art songs but not until later in his career his works began to be recognized. When he moved to New York he played with various music groups and was the musical director for the Pace Phonography Company. He later moved to Los Angeles, California and continued to write commercial music for films and television shows28.
Similar to Florence Price, William Grant Still broke barriers of racial power structures and tension. He started off organizing band music for Paul Whiteman a white bandleader, composer and orchestral director; which concluded to him to make the works Darker America and From the Black Belt. From those works he received Rosewald and Guggenhein fellowships29. His works were also known to be conservative, melodious and frequently based on spirituals. William experienced huge success when the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra gave a performance of Afro-American Symphony. When he conducted Los Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl he made history being the first African American to conduct an American Orchestra. According to Biography, William was also awarded any honorary degrees from Howard University, Oberlin College, The University of Arkansas, Pepperdine University and University of Southern California30. William was also called the “Dean of Afro-American Composers” because he was the first African American to have his opera performed by a major company and symphony performed by a major orchestra31. His career came to an end when he passed away at the age of 83 on December 3rd, 1978.
Some differences between Florence and William were gender. Gender played a significant role in both of their lives. Even though both had similar upbringings, it was a lot easier for a male to get recognized for something than a female. A lot of articles about William said that he was the first African American composer to have his compositional works performed however, Florence Price piece was performed by a major Orchestra yet William gets the title of “Dean of Afro-American Composers”. Florence Price also was older than him yet he gets more recognition for being the first successful African American composer. Another difference in their career was William wrote a little over 100 compositional works and Florence wrote over 300 compositional works. Most of Williams works were kept and Florence compositional works were lost. Florence being a female composer did not receive as much respect and attention as she deserved. Williams on the other hand still received a lot more respect and attention during and after his musical career. Another difference between their careers is that William did not have to submit his compositional works to contest or write letters begging for name recognition.
Overall Florence Price has left a significant mark on history being one of the first African American women composers that made an impact on classical music.
1 "Price, Florence Beatrice," in Encyclopedia of World Biography, 26:307.